Without a doubt, the automation industry is one of the biggest winners of the COVID crisis. This occurred despite lockdowns leading to scaled-back production and a reduced workload on existing systems; still, interest in automation as a solution to the crisis has increased dramatically. In our country, our articles on this subject have consistently been at the top of the readership list and have generated considerable engagement. The sector has been talked about many, many times, so business decision-makers have a good idea of its importance. But few know much about what it means for a company to decide to implement automation.
The consultancy process
One of the biggest inputs from the pandemic in this area is that the consulting process, which used to be embedded in the design and implementation of automation systems themselves, has been transformed into an almost entirely separate business. Although customers are now still striving to achieve “turnkey” solutions, it is important for them to see the process strategically first and align it with business objectives, rather than focusing on implementing production lines. This need has very much filtered through the market, because buying machines, planning their operation, quantity, and implementation is one thing, but looking at processes at a strategic level is a different story. At a strategic level, it has become clear that automation – if a company really wants to maximise the opportunities it brings – also affects HR and is indeed an integral part of the business methodology. This is one reason why a good automation methodology, i.e. the consultancy process itself, can take a month to develop by default, but can take up to 4-5 months for a company with complex manufacturing. An important element of this consultancy should be the review of the technology and processes, the preparation of a technical report, the joint development of an automation strategy (AS-IS, TO-BE, TO-DO) with a clear focus on the owners’ requirements. Definition and competitive tendering of development plans, supply chain and network planning, and project conversion of development plans. In any case, these technical processes should be preceded by a strategy meeting or interactive workshop with the top decision-makers, where the automation opportunities and benefits are clearly presented and the business expectations, plans, and strategic objectives are made known to the experts. The consultancy should not be rushed, as it is the basis on which the whole project is designed. It could also be said that the extent of the subsequent cost savings will stand or fall during this phase.
Design and construction
Once the strategic foundations are in place, the process is effectively self-propelled. This means that the automation specialists themselves work very intensively, but this is the less visible part of the job. Requests for information, data and reports are received, the point of which is to ensure that the design is actually moving along the previously defined objectives. In a good automation process, the design consists of the following work phases: project initiation, preparation of concept and licensing plans (control, instrumentation, electrical, mechanical, safety), procurement and quality assurance planning, preparation of detailed design and software plans, design review, preparation of the “D” plan (at the end of commissioning). Once the design is complete, the implementation can start, with the following phases: design project start, procurement, programming, factory assembly, FAT (Factory Acceptance Test), site assembly, installation, SAT (Site Acceptance Test), including function and automation tests, validation, training/simulation, and handover. Design usually takes 1-3 months, and subsequent implementation can take 3-9 months depending on the complexity of the project. In total, a professional automation project for a simple production will therefore take roughly 5 months, and for a more complex production with a larger machine park, a period of 1-1.5 years can be expected. For this reason, there is often a need to speed up the process, but this is not recommended by a real expert, as time can only be gained in the professional, mainly consulting stages, which in turn takes away from the effectiveness of the project, and this is something to be very careful about.
Automation is typically an area where the initiation of the process and setup of the machinery is just the beginning, and it is very important that our contractor partner provides us with ongoing support, which includes maintenance, 24/7 online and offline service, training, and measuring, tracking, and monitoring improvements. There is a growing need in the market for contractors to look for automation partners who are not dependent on one manufacturer – as these companies are already severely limited in their capabilities in terms of consultancy and design – as different manufacturers and machine types can lead to a wide range of solutions, so when dealing with one manufacturer, the best product is not always incorporated into the process. The other major disadvantage is precisely in after-sales service, as they cannot provide their customers with a suitable product portfolio. This is one reason why more and more companies are starting their new automation developments with a “brand independence test” of their existing processes, whereby the risk of being linked to a single manufacturer is assessed with the experts in order to eliminate this problem in the development project later on.